Some Hawks fans had the joy of watching this team during the successful seasons in the 80s and 90s.
Others have not, and it's not just the bandwagon fans.
I am one of them.
I don’t know how it started. It was probably a combination of the Mighty Ducks movies and the Sega Genesis that got me into hockey. I know I latched onto the Blackhawks at some point, with a vague memory of Sergei Krivokrasov’s game-winning goal against Patrick Roy in the playoffs sitting in the back of my mind. The next season, 1996-97, at the age of 9, my dad ran across some Blackhawks tickets. I said we had to go, and on March 28, 1997, I stepped into the United Center for the first time and marched to my seat—two rows off the ice, on the side of the net.
I don’t remember the anthem, although I’m sure it was loud. I remember that I had no idea when the puck would find the net; I just jumped out of my seat after everyone else did. That was until I saw Tony Amonte, standing at the side of the net, tap a rebound into a gaping Anaheim goal. I leapt from my seat, feeling like I was the first person in the building to see the puck go in. One goal, and I was hooked.
The Hawks lost that night, 4-3. I didn’t know much about the team, but I learned the names of Amonte and Eric Daze. I can remember being in the car, listening to the postgame show on the radio, and wondering why everyone was talking about this guy Roenick when he wasn’t even on the team. The callers seemed really upset, too.
My discovery of hockey couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Hawks would be bounced from the first round of the playoffs that season, and failed to qualify the next year, ending a 28-year run. For the next decade, the Hawks would continue to slide into sports oblivion, with the 2001-02 season providing a brief glimmer of hope that was dashed in the next year.
I fell in love with every Hawks player that came to town, every young player that was pegged as the future of the franchise. I wore my Daze jersey proudly, and cheered for Kyle Calder, Steve Sullivan, Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell, Dean McAmmond, Ethan Moreau, Chad Kilger, Jean-Yves Leroux, Doug Zmolek, Boris Mironov, Josef Marha, and dozens more.
As these players fizzled out, I tried to stay positive. I wanted to cry when Sullivan was traded, but hoped to God that the draft picks in return would prove to be worthwhile.
Like yesterday, I can recall the lowest I felt as a Hawks fan. December 23, 2005, one year after the lockout, Hawks vs. Red Wings. Chicago was far from the current turnaround, yet they always seemed to play well against the powerful Red Wings. The large crowd at the UC is misleading: there were probably more winged wheels than Indian Heads in the audience. But from my 300 level seats, behind the goal, I watch the Hawks take a 2-0 lead, and carry it late into the third period. "One minute remaining," is announced, and the crowd begins to cheer—we hadn’t had many reasons to applaud in that season. Kris Draper scores with 39 seconds left, and my heart begins to sink. Thirty-two seconds later, Brendan Shanahan lights the lamp, and we’re going to OT.
"It’s okay," I lie to myself. "We’re going to see the first shootout in United Center history." That tells you how confident I was in the Hawks’ offense.
Late in OT, rookie defenseman Duncan Keith takes a tripping penalty, and the Wings go to the power play. Khabibulin is in net, and he starts standing on his head, turning aside some great shots. Ten seconds to go now, and I see Khabibulin make another save at the top of the crease. This has to be it! I’m going to see the shootout. A quick glance to the scoreboard says three seconds left. Nik Lidstrom passes to Jason Woolley, who passes to Datsyuk (sound the damn horn!), he shoots and …. No. No. NO!!!
Wait! The green light is on! No red means no goal, right? Right?
An official’s review awarded the goal to Detroit, and the Wings went from a 2-0 deficit in the final minute of the third to a 3-2 overtime victory. The final goal was officially scored at 4:59, but it had to be at 4:59.99999999999999. I still can’t believe that puck went in before the final whistle.
I sunk in my seat, hiding from the Wings fans that I’d been heckling while the Hawks were ahead. They were much happier now and were letting me hear it. I hung my head and drudged my way to the parking lot. I contemplated giving up the tickets I’d had for a game a few months later. I was crushed. It didn’t seem like the Hawks were ever going to be good.
If they couldn’t win this game, how the hell were they ever going to turn it around?
The next summer, Toews was drafted, Kane the following season, and you know the rest.
I was too young to experience the dominant Hawks of the late 80s and early 90s. I got into the game just as Jeremy Roenick was on his way out of town. The 1991-92 Stanley Cup Finals never met my eyes (and it may be better off that way). No, my time as a Hawks fan has been years of suffering. It’s been painful. It’s been downright excruciating at times. Until 2009, I hadn’t seen the Hawks win a playoff series.
But now … with the most exciting two weeks of hockey ahead of me … it’s been worth every second.